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Aug 21 / Great Apes

Gone Home: Great Effort, Disappointing Execution

A lot of reviews of Gone Home begin by saying that the reviewer can’t tell you anything about the game without risking spoiling it for you and you should just go play it without knowing much about it because it’s the bestest.  Both of those things, as it happens, are untrue.  I’ll save any super-spoilery bits for a clearly marked section at the end of this post, but there’s no reason not to tell you some of the basics up front.

In Gone Home you play as a 20 year old college student named Kaitlyn who had been gallivanting around Europe and has just come home on a break from school and travel.  “Home” in this case is a bit misleading though, as her family has moved into a rather large new house while Kaitlyn was overseas.  As a result the house is unfamiliar to her.  Upon arriving well after 1 in the morning Kaitlyn finds a note from her sister Sam telling her that she’s gone and apparently her parents are nowhere to be found either.  Thankfully Sam’s voice magically appears to narrate her own story to you in drips and drabs as you explore the mysteriously vacant dwelling!  From that point on you wander around the house picking up and examining objects (mostly letters that members of your family have left very conveniently strewn about) to piece together the story.  Oh, and there are doors that are locked for reasons that never really make any sense, so you have to track down keys for them.

While most reviews state that the game has three central plot threads, by my count there are at least five.  The first is the story Sam tells you through her voice over which ultimately explains why she is missing, the second is about your dad’s career, the third is about your mom’s career, the fourth is about the history of the house you’re in, and the fifth is about why your parents are missing (which is tangentially related to stories 2 and 3).  You’ll notice something peculiar that’s missing from that list, and that’s anything to do with Kaitlyn.  In this story Kaitlyn is merely a witness to the lives of her family, particularly Sam.  On one level it makes sense that there is no “Kaitlyn story” in that you play as Kaitlyn so why would she have to learn her own story, but it’s also very bizarre.  Kaitlyn exists essentially so that the player can hear Sam’s story and has no real agency or character of her own.

To be honest there wasn’t that much that I actually liked about the game but before I get to some of my specific criticisms I want to say that I admire what the developers were trying to do and I’m glad they did it.  Telling a story about a fairly standard family with fairly standard family problems in a format the focusses almost entirely on the narrative to the exclusion of any kind of twitch, action-y elements is admirable and I hope we see more developers who try to make honest, heartfelt games about things other than shooting soldiers in the face.

Except that . . . the game would certainly have been better if it actually stuck to telling the fairly standard family story.  The whole thing is wrapped up in a very bizarre delivery that suggests that it’s trying to be a ghost story, only it really definitely is not.  There is nothing supernatural in the game, and the frequent suggestions that maybe there could be pretty badly hurt the tone.  Sam’s story is pretty touching but delivering it to the player while trying to ambiently creep them out just hits all the wrong notes.  There’s one brief moment in particular that I won’t spoil but that I found especially off-putting (minor spoiler: it takes place in the upstairs bathroom).

The delivery of the narrative fell flat for me in other aspects as well.  While I think that the outline of the story could make for a good work of art, the delivery of that story here just doesn’t work for me.  A major reason for that is that you never actually see any of the characters going through any of the situations that are described in their letters, which made it really hard for me to relate to them as people.  Ironically, given the game’s complete lack of cut scenes, I think this story would probably work better as a movie with a full cast.

While the primary complaint against Gone Home thus far seems to be that it isn’t really a “game” I had the opposite reaction: it’s too game-y.  There was just too much that didn’t make sense.  Why are parts of the house locked?  Why are these documents laid out the way they are?  Why do half the rooms in the house have a tape deck in them?  Why is there exactly one tape in every room?  And so on.

[Super ultra spoilery section begins now]

The rest of this post will discuss two of Gone Home’s major reveals, so if you have any intention of playing the game and haven’t yet this is probably a good point to stop reading until you’ve played it.

First off I’m going to talk about the first of the two big reveals about Sam.  I get the impression that one of the reasons the game has been so well received is that the central plot thread is about a teenage girl coming out as a lesbian to her family and people are really happy to see a game that tries to deal with that topic in a heartfelt and unadorned way.  And to a large degree I agree with those people; I think it’s important to combat the boorish tendencies of many hardcore gamers and that the industry will only move forward if it starts treating serious issues seriously.  But while I really appreciate the fact that the developers decided to tell that story, I still can’t say that I especially enjoyed the game because the experience as a whole just didn’t work for me.

Once you’ve made it into the attic and discovered Sam’s ultimate destiny even more problems with the story emerge.  Why has Sam set up this elaborate search across the house for Kaitlyn to get to the diary in the attic rather than placing it somewhere that would be easier for Kaitlyn to find?  Sam knows that her parents will be gone for another couple of days and that Kaitlyn will be arriving first so it’s not like there’s any reason to worry about them finding it instead.  And given that Sam essentially ran out of the house in a hurry, how would she have had time to set up the search that she sends Kaitlyn on anyway?  (Given that the first key is found in Sam’s locker and that later portions of the game are discoverable only because of notes Sam has left for Kaitlyn I can only surmise that it was, in fact, Sam who locked all the doors and sent Kaitlyn searching for the keys.)

Another fairly large problem emerged for me after discovering the fate of Kaitlyn’s parents.  Given that they had simply gone on vacation for a week, the fact that Kaitlyn essentially goes through all of their things and learns about aspects of their life that they would surely like to keep hidden from their daughter, I felt as though Kaitlyn (and thus me, as a player) had tremendously violated her parents’ privacy.  I recognise that the structure of the game requires this to occur because the only way to learn about anything in it is by reading documents, but doesn’t this suggest that to some degree what the game asks you to do is wrong?  That’s how it came across to me.

So, while I very much admire what the developers of Gone Home were trying to do and I think the story they told is an important one, ultimately I found the experience as a whole to be very disappointing.  Once you start to piece the narrative together the broader experience of the game simply stops making sense.

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